Workplaces and schools often unintentionally create environments that disincentivize the exact behaviors they hope to encourage.
In the workplace, it’s extremely common to see a manager offer a bonus to their team if they hit a goal like “80 cold call dials per day.” In the classroom, it’s even more common to have an assignment with a specific deadline and rubric that maps out the exact requirements to achieve a “perfect” score.
Both of these rewards seem like they would lead to their desired actions. And, in the short term, that is likely exactly what happens.
But the results don’t last.
After the bonus period ends, the same sales rep who received a bonus last week is trailing far behind the daily cold call count. And the instructor grading those perfect papers sees dozens of papers that exactly meet the requirements, but few papers that exceed them.
Why do rewards seem to have the opposite effect?
In her thesis, “The Effect of Rewards and Motivation on Student Achievement,” researcher Lori Kay Baranek found that these well-intentioned rewards and incentives have a negative impact on a student’s long-term motivation. Consistently, research findings confirm that the more someone is rewarded for a task, the more they resist it, and the worse they perform.
Our children, our students and our workforce are building up a “reward resistance,” and we desperately need to break our dependence on the rewards habit.
The Measure Of A Manager
In the book Drive, author Daniel Pink lays out a case against the use of extrinsic motivators to incentivize creative, nonlinear work, as they have been found to narrow focus, reduce creativity displayed in work, increase errors in work and reduce ideation.
In business, hiring managers often cite grit, creativity, curiosity and innovative thinking among their desired traits. Yet tying extrinsic rewards to these traits is widespread in business.
Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed a model of the key components that drive intrinsic motivation, called self-determination theory. When someone is motivated to perform an action because of outside pressures, they are considered extrinsically motivated. When an individual is motivated to perform an action for the sake of the action, they are considered intrinsically motivated.
Self-determination theory lays out three drivers of intrinsic motivation: autonomy (the desire for control and choice in our lives), relatedness (the desire for purpose, meaning and connection through our actions) and competence (the desire to grow in mastery).
Deci and Ryan believed that sustainable motivation comes from within, and intrinsic motivation cannot be forced onto someone.
To that end, Deci said, “Instead of asking, ‘How can I motivate people?’ we should be asking, ‘How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?’”
Higher Education, Higher Motivation?
As a cofounder of an education technology company, I am both a manager of a team in a growing startup and the chief product officer for an educational platform used by hundreds of thousands of students.
Many of the instructors we work with at my company believe strongly in the tenets of self-determination theory and have expressed their desire to see their students engage passionately and organically in the courses.
But they face challenges in designing a learning environment that is conducive to intrinsic motivation, either due to pressures on assessment, specific course curriculum expectations or the fact that they can only control their own course and not the requirements in their students’ other classes. However, even when an individual doesn’t have control over the entire system, there are always ways to support autonomy, competency and relatedness in any environment.
Creating Conditions For Intrinsic Motivation To Thrive
1. Show relatedness. Connect all work to a “why.” It is simply never enough to use authority to compel action. This might lead to begrudging compliance, but it kills the connection between a given piece of work and its purpose.
• In the classroom: Explain the purpose of each assignment or project fully by explaining what the project is intended to accomplish and how it will help the students grow in their academic careers. Connect it to an application in the broader world.
• In the workplace: Explore the deeper “why” behind the company’s work. If your company focuses solely on profit or on a specific product and not on the value you create in the world, it will be hard for team members to see how their work creates an impact.
2. Enable autonomy. Create space for individual choice and personal control wherever possible.
• In the classroom: Incorporate a project or assignment that requires participation, but leaves the style, quality or type of engagement up to the students’ choice. Online discussion is an excellent medium for students to control and offers autonomy over their learning experience through asking their own open-ended discussion questions.
• In the workplace: Use a goal-setting framework to enable team members to set their own individual goals. At my company, we use the “objectives and key results” (OKR) framework to set goals. The company shares our high-level objectives with the team, and each individual sets personal goals that combine business initiatives with their personal interests and strengths.
3. Encourage competency. Show the path to mastery, and share praise for progress over outcomes.
• In the classroom: Create opportunities for growth feedback unrelated to formal assessments. This is important to developing a healthy relationship with feedback and allowing students to learn from the feedback with a growth mindset.
• In the workplace: Understand team members’ career and learning goals. Creating an environment that allows team members to pursue competency and mastery requires that managers first understand what a team member seeks to master and then create opportunities for development in this path.
We can break our reliance on extrinsic motivators to see students and colleagues realize their full potential, but it comes at a cost: control.
But the rewards are worth it.